'Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these
Indigestibles, the spars of purposes
That failed far from the surface.'
from Relic Ted Hughes
'Hydrogen peroxide?' 'Yes, that's right.' The shop assistant shook her head a little nervously. 'I'll ask the manager.' The manager eyed me up and down before confirming what I already suspected. 'We are not allowed to sell it any more.' Afterwards I thought how glad I was that she hadn't asked me why I wanted it. I would only have dug myself in deeper. 'Well, you see, I have these bones...' I discovered later that it is quite easy to buy hydrogen peroxide on the internet (but then what isn't?). It seems rather perverse that something deemed too dangerous to stock in a chemist is safe enough to send through the post. In fact the chemist did stock plenty of hair products containing peroxide but I only wanted to whiten my bones, not condition them or give them a shiny bounce.
When I say my bones I don't actually mean my own, which I aim to keep safely tucked away on the inside for now. I mean the animal bones I have found on my travels and can't stop myself from picking up and bringing home. A few weeks ago I found a seal skull on the Fife coast near St Andrews. It lacks a jaw bone but is otherwise almost complete, even keeping some of its upper teeth. It is astonishing, ribbed and vaulted like a cathedral or a crypt, sculpted with precision for its purpose. I have washed all the sand out of it and it now sits in the bathroom, waiting to be treated. Hydrogen peroxide sterilises and whitens bone without reacting with and softening it as domestic bleach does.
For me, bones are among the most irresistible objets trouvés, rivalling shells in the intricacy of their design. They are things of beauty and curiosity and, cleaned up and brought into the setting of a modern home, they make striking ornaments and talking points. Reactions to my little collection of skulls and antlers vary, as you might expect. Some visitors find them ghoulish, others faintly unhygienic, overlooking the fact that they are far more sterile than houseplants or pets or ourselves! But plenty of folk seem to share my enthusiasm and are a little covetous. Some admit to having collections of their own.
Gathering bones is as old as the hills. Of course many of their practical uses have been superseded and their decorative uses largely outmoded if not thoroughly outlawed. But bones retain powerful symbolic significances, much exploited and trivialised by popular culture. Their intricate architecture aside, what mostly entices me to pick them up is that strange capacity they have to remind me simultaneously of our transience and our permanance. In Ted Hughes' poem Relic, on the everlasting cycle of consuming and being consumed, the 'indigestibles' - the claws and carapaces and vertebrae that the sea disgorges - 'continue the beginning'.
It is an enviably succinct phrase. And that's what we all do, as we go through our lives, isn't it? We continue the beginning. Perhaps one day far from now, when I have quite done with my own inside bones, some stroller will find one by chance and admire it enough to take home. I find that very comforting.